ZAIDON, Iraq – To understand the roots of Islamic extremism in Iraq, you must first study this rural Sunni area of western Baghdad province. The religion runs so conservative here, many men wear thick beards and Afghan-style robes that end at the calf.
Women completely cover much of their faces. Tribal ties bind and tear at the area.
It was here in Zaidon, according to an American military report, that religious fundamentalism in Iraq began. Saddam Hussein’s government never could completely diffuse Zaidon. Nor could the American military or post-invasion government. But one company of Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers has the mission of trying to help the Iraqi army tame the area.
“I’m not sure there’s any way an American can solve the conflict, and I’m not sure the Iraqis really know what to do,” said Capt. Andy Lembke, the commander of Comanche Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. “Our goal right now is just to get the (Iraqi army) and the local leaders talking. That’s the best we can hope for here.”
During a patrol in Zaidon in late December, Fort Lewis troops and Iraqi soldiers searched several houses for weapons caches but found nothing. The soldiers searched amid mud-brick homes and throughout the variety of landscapes that comprise Zaidon, from the dusty scrubland to the orchards near the Euphrates River.
Villagers eyed both countries’ soldiers warily, and women were hidden from view during the searches. American Marines and soldiers have fought over this land in past years, but much of the violence in 2010 appears to be infighting among the dominant Zobai tribe.
The conservative strain of Islam known as Salafism took hold in Zaidon in the late 1970s, according to an unclassified report from the military’s anthropology wing, the Human Terrain System. Saddam’s government had little effect in the area, whose deep tribal ties make it more like neighboring Anbar province than Baghdad, and the former president granted autonomy to the region in the early 1990s.
Sheikhs received land from the government and were allowed to institute tribal law. When Saddam launched the Return to the Faith campaign in 1993, the region’s imams became just as powerful.
“After that, it was open season for extremist thought,” Lembke said. “Groups in Zaidon started talking to groups outside the country.”
But the residents of Zaidon relish their history of repelling outsiders. A tribesman killed a British officer in 1920, sparking a revolution. His descendent, Sheik Harith al-Dhari, chairs the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni organization that has advocated attacks against Americans. Al-Dhari’s son is believed to be the leader of the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade extremist group, Lembke added.
Insurgent groups are entrenched. The region became a center for al-Qaida in Iraq influence, “which was sanctioned politically by local tribal authorities,” according to a 2008 Human Terrain System report.
And the area’s geography lends itself to smuggling. Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who until recently ran American military operations in the Baghdad region, said intelligence points to weapons and plastic explosives coming through Zaidon and nearby Nasir wa Salam.
“It’s a transition region,” he said. “By definition, it’s where people who want to smuggle things naturally go, following river valleys and canyons. The route long outdates this war.”
The Human Terrain System report said Zaidon’s isolation has made it a hub for weapons caches and distribution networks, and a staging ground for attacks in Baghdad.
To add another layer of complexity, the Zobai tribe has been split into two feuding factions since 1826. One typically aligns itself with al-Qaida in Iraq; the other, with the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade. And their leaders live and issue orders from Jordan and possibly Syria, making reconciliation even more difficult.
Violence appears to be the status quo. The tribe’s factions fight often, and one side cooperated with the Americans against al-Qaida in 2007. In November 2009, insurgents wearing fake Iraqi army uniforms arrested and killed 13 people.
During December’s patrol, one resident of the village of Khudair told American and Iraqi soldiers that someone had slaughtered his cows during the night.
The Fort Lewis company has the task of trying to figure out if these were crimes, terrorist acts, tribal infighting or something else. Lembke gathered much of his information about the tribal structures from meeting with regional leaders but admits many questions remain.
And with the withdrawal of American troops across Iraq, it’s uncertain how much involvement the unit that replaces Comanche Company will have.
“We can pick up guys 24/7,” Lembke said. “The real problem is getting in there and figuring out that, when we leave, it’s just the IA in Zaidon. At some point, (the residents of Zaidon) will have to come to terms with that. They don’t have the resources to fight and fight like the national government does, and eventually they’ll lose.”